The recent street disturbances in Northern Ireland, albeit on a far smaller scale compared to the decades of the ‘Troubles’, showed that the ‘power sharing’ arrangements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement have failed to bring about a resolution of the ‘Irish national question’ or end the sectarian divide, under capitalism. A pivotal event in this enduring sectarian divide was the partition of the country, which the British ruling class engineered 100 years ago in 1921 in order to cut across a developing working-class socialist movement. Niall Mulholland of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) explains how partition came about.

A mural in Derry depicting the 1960s civil rights movement - the beginning of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Partition by the British ruling class created the Frankenstein monster of sectarianism, that has turned upon its maker, photo Suzanne Mischys

A mural in Derry depicting the 1960s civil rights movement – the beginning of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Partition by the British ruling class created the Frankenstein monster of sectarianism, that has turned upon its maker, photo Suzanne Mischys   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

On 24 May 1921, elections to the new Parliament of Northern Ireland saw the Ulster Unionist Party win two-thirds of the votes cast and three-quarters of the seats in the Assembly. The creation of Northern Ireland (in the northeast of the country made up of six counties, with a Protestant majority) was followed a few months later by the birth of the Free State (26 counties, with an overwhelmingly Catholic population).

As the great Irish workers’ leader, James Connolly, forewarned in 1914, the partition of Ireland would be accompanied by “a carnival of reaction”. Both states were born out of counter-revolution, sectarian pogroms and military rule.

From the outset, they were impoverished and church-ridden capitalist states. The Catholic minority in the North were subject to institutionalised discrimination and state repression.

Was this division the inevitable outcome of supposed age-old animosities between Catholics and Protestants?

The 17th and 18th century ‘plantation’ of Protestants, mainly from Scotland to Ulster, who were given lands confiscated from the rebellious native Irish Catholics, was a colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’. However, the United Irishmen’s 1798 rebellion, led by northern Protestants radicalised by the American and French revolutions, illustrated that “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter” could unite against repressive colonial rule.

After the heroic ’98 rebellion was put down with great bloodshed, the Act of Union saw the Irish parliament in Dublin abolished. Nevertheless, under the heel of colonial exploitation, religious persecution and famine, resistance in Ireland continued, taking both ‘constitutional’ and physical-force forms.

The question of Irish self-rule came onto the agenda for decades prior to World War One. By the 1880s, the Home Rule party, representing the growing middle class in the south of Ireland, held the balance of power in the House of Commons.

In April 1886, Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill. Although it provided for the most limited form of self-government, the Ulster bosses saw it as a threat to their prosperity.

Following the Act of Union, industry in the mainly Protestant north east, such as the linen mills, engineering and later shipbuilding were prospering, and depended on Britain and the Empire for their markets.

Ulster Unionist bosses formed an alliance with the Conservative Party. The 1886 Bill was lost in the Commons and another Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Lords in 1893.

Unionist bosses also cemented links with the reactionary Protestant Orange Order – formed in 1795 as a bulwark against the United Irishmen – and carried out a systematic policy of discrimination against Catholics.

Despite their political differences, Home Rule-supporting bosses in the south and Ulster unionist employers were both alarmed by the rise of the labour and trade union movement.

The 1907 Belfast dockers’ strike resulted in the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union two years’ later. In 1913, the Dublin employers locked out 25,000 workers, which ended in stalemate. The Irish Citizen Army was formed during the lockout, to defend strikers from police attacks, and was fashioned by James Connolly as a revolutionary socialist militia.

At the same time, the Home Rule crisis continued. After the 1910 Westminster elections, the British Liberal government was dependent on the votes of the parliamentary Home Rule party. In 1911, the powers of the House of Lords were limited by an Act of Parliament, opening the way for Irish home rule.

Unionists began organising and drilling for what became known as the Ulster Volunteer Force. When the Liberal government in London made a precautionary move against Unionist resistance, using the British army in Ireland, they were met with a mutiny of British army officers at the Curragh barracks.

The Irish National Volunteers was formed at the end of 1913 and controlled by an uneasy alliance of Sinn Féin supporters, members of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and John Redmond’s United Irish League.

Civil war seemed to threaten until the outbreak of World War One. The unionists were promised by the British government that participation in the war would secure Ulster against Home Rule. The Redmonites were told that sending workers to the killing fields of Flanders for the “rights of small nations” would bring post-war home rule to Ireland.

The Volunteers split, with a minority under Sinn Fein and IRB influence opposing participation in the war. Connolly’s Citizen Army took the same attitude. These forces led the 1916 Easter rising. The revolt failed but British brutality, particularly the executions of the rising’s leaders, including Connolly, radicalised the nationalist population.

In February 1917, republicans put up an independent candidate in a by-election in North Roscommon who easily defeated the Redmonite candidate. The Irish Volunteers’ numbers mushroomed to between 50,000 to 60,000. Sinn Féin grew rapidly, with Eamonn de Valera, the most senior surviving commandant of Easter 1916, at its head. The leadership was, in effect, a coalition of nationalists of varying political views and class interests.

Absence of leadership

With James Connolly dead, the labour movement leadership did not take an independent class position on the national question. They allowed middle-class nationalists to lead the struggle for national liberation.

Yet the power of the working class was on display. When the British government announced in early 1918 that conscription would be introduced in Ireland, the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party called a successful general strike on 23 April and halted British plans.

Irish labour leaders mistakenly did not contest Westminster elections in 1918. Out of 105 seats in Ireland, Sinn Fein won 73 and the Unionists won 26 seats.

On 1 January 1919, Sinn Fein members who had been elected gathered at Dublin’s Mansion House and established Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament). The first country to recognise the Irish republic was the young Soviet Republic of Russia. The 1917 Russian revolution was an inspiration in Ireland, where the struggle was against British imperialism, the Irish capitalists, and big landlords.

After the shooting of a republican prisoner by British forces in Limerick, the Limerick Trades and Labour Council called a city-wide strike on 4 April 1919. The Limerick ‘soviet’ – based on the Russian revolution’s mass workers’ councils – emerged. The trades council virtually took over the running of the city. But the Irish Trade Union Congress failed to spread solidarity action, and the local Sinn Féin mayor and the Catholic Church undermined the soviet.

Thousands of British troops were poured into the country to augment the Royal Irish Constabulary. Michael Collins, the Volunteers’ Director of Organisation and Intelligence, ordered the obtaining of arms and ammunition. The Volunteers now became the ‘army of the Irish Republic’ – the IRA.

A clash between IRA men of Cork No 2 Brigade and the military in Fermoy on 7 September opened the ‘War of Independence’.

This was a largely rural guerrilla struggle against British colonial brutality. Throughout the war, strong class tensions existed within the republican movement. Sinn Féin leaders were mainly from the middle and lower-middle classes. Most IRA fighters were urban workers and the rural poor, and many instinctively wanted social and national liberation.

The British ruling class was also deeply concerned by rising industrial struggles. In 1919, an engineers’ and transport workers’ strikes in Belfast assumed general strike proportions. The power of the organised working class was on display again on 12 April 1920, when the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Labour Party called a general strike in support of political prisoners on hunger strike. In May 1920, the ITGWU called a strike against military occupation.

Between 1921 and 1923, many workers and rural workers’ occupations and strikes took place. But the leadership of the labour and trade union movement lagged behind events and failed to lead and extend the struggles.

Many of these working-class initiatives were eventually suppressed by the British authorities, the conservative wing of the IRA and, after partition, by pro-Treaty Free State forces.

British imperialism’s greatest fear was the possibility of the struggle against colonial rule in Ireland converging with the politically radicalised working class in Britain. In January 1919, there was a general strike in Glasgow at the same time as that in Belfast.

To shore up their position, Unionist bosses whipped up Orange reaction. In July 1920, prominent Unionists incited loyalist mobs to attack Catholic areas. Not only Catholics, but also socialists and active trade-unionists, including Protestants, were driven from their jobs and homes.

Aside from a few courageous attempts to oppose these attacks, there was a lack of an overall lead from the trade unions and from the labour movement throughout Ireland and Britain.

Faced with a drawn-out guerrilla campaign, international condemnation of British brutality, an economic slump following World War One, restive populations in other parts of the Empire, and waves of industrial and social unrest across Ireland and Britain, the Westminster government moved towards imposing a ‘constitutional settlement’ in Ireland, exploiting the sectarian conflict in the North.

Government of Ireland Act

In December 1920 the Government of Ireland Act was passed, stipulating two separate parliaments, one in the North, one in the South.

The Act was foisted on Ireland by British imperialism primarily in order to divide and disorientate the workers’ movement. British imperialism also wanted to hold onto the industrialised north east and maintain vital naval bases.

Unionists grudgingly accepted the Act because most of Ulster would still be part of the United Kingdom and they had a secure Protestant majority in the six counties (65% Protestant, 35% Catholic).

Northern Catholics were isolated and terrorised in Northern Ireland as the reactionary Unionist state consolidated itself. The May 1921 elections to the new Northern Ireland parliament resulted in the Ulster Unionist Party winning 40 out of 52 seats. The republican movement rejected the Act and continued to meet as the Dáil.

By mid-1921, both the British government and IRA realised that they had reached a military stalemate. A truce was called in July 1921. De Valera led a delegation to negotiations held in London but he rejected the offer of token independence.

In October, a new delegation led by the anti-socialist Arthur Griffith went to negotiate with Prime Minister Lloyd George.

The PM threatened that if they did not sign the treaty the British would embark on a course of all-out war “within three days”. Griffith and other compromising middle-class republican leaders agreed to the British terms.

Only the working class could have led a successful struggle against imperialism. The middle-class Sinn Féin leaders had no perspective for the mobilisation of the workers, let alone Protestant workers. This was the role of the labour movement but its leadership had abjectly failed to carry it out from 1918 onwards.

On 6 December 1921, the Sinn Féin delegation to Downing Street put their names on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, accepting the creation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

Many rank-and-file working-class republicans who had led the guerrilla struggle felt betrayed. The Catholic church and the Irish bosses’-owned newspapers framed the Anglo-Irish Treaty as a choice between peace and a return to stability or a resumption of guerrilla warfare.

The Dáil Éireann narrowly voted 64-57 in favour of the treaty on 7 January 1922. Bitterly fought general elections in June saw more pro-Treaty than anti-Treaty TDs (MPs) elected.

The IRA split, with the majority rejecting the Treaty. The pro-Treaty section formed the new Free State army. Anti-Treaty forces established a separate headquarters in the Four Courts building in Dublin. A tense standoff ensued. Using British artillery, the Free State bombarded the Four Courts and a civil war began.

The Free State conducted a ruthless military campaign. 77 IRA members were executed. While the anti-Treaty IRA involved the most radical volunteers, overall it was dominated by pro-capitalist leaders, like Éamon de Valera, who mainly wanted better terms with Britain.

The civil war ended in April 1923, with the anti-Treaty IRA defeated. When de Valera led a section of the defeated anti-Treatyites into the Dáil in 1927, Sinn Féin and the IRA split.

Legacy of partition

The effects of the civil war lasted for decades in the south, as the successor parties of the pro- and anti-Treaty sides, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, dominated Irish politics. They presided over an impoverished state, mass emigration and domination of everyday life by the Catholic Church.

In the North, the institutional discrimination and repression of Catholics finally exploded into the civil rights struggle in the late 1960s. Brutal state repression and the failure of the reformist labour and trade union movement to offer a lead saw a generation of Catholic working-class youth turn to the individual terror campaign of the Provisional IRA.

After nearly 30 years of conflict, a negotiated settlement led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly was established. But under capitalism, nothing has been fundamentally resolved and sectarian divisions remain.

Contentious issues, such as Brexit, the ‘east-west’ Irish Sea customs border, demographic changes and calls for a ‘border poll’ (a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or join the Irish Republic), as well as the failure of the ‘peace dividend’ to find its way to Protestant and Catholic working-class areas, underscore the inherently volatile and unstable Northern Ireland entity.

Yet the tradition of workers’ action and unity against sectarianism is also alive. Bus workers walked off the job after facing physical attacks during riots in mainly loyalist areas over Easter.

As the painful lessons of partition show, developing working-class unity and creating an independent party of the working class with a socialist programme is essential.

A socialist Ireland, with full rights guaranteed for the Protestant population, as part of a socialist federation of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, on a voluntary and equal basis, and a socialist Europe, can finally overcome the bitter divisions.

  • See also ‘Troubled Times’ published in 1995 by the late CWI member, Peter Hadden. The book (currently out of print) deals with the reasons for partition and the role of class struggle in Irish history. It can be read online at